Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Myths of Historical Positivism

We Americans have a rather short collective memory. As I watch the current incarnation of the quadrennial charade we refer to as a Presidential election, I cannot help but be overwhelmed by the way that historical positivism completely overwhelms our cultural narrative -- to the point that it blinds us to the realities that are all around us.

Perhaps some explanation is in order here. When I refer to "positivism," I am referring to the philosophy that grew out of the Enlightenment that discounted metaphysical or spiritual explanations for phenomena of the natural world. Instead, followers of positivism believed that knowledge could only come from sensory experience and the empirical measurement or classification of that experience. While this mode of thought certainly spurred great advances in human society -- the scientific method perhaps greatest among them -- it also later created controversy.

The controversy really took off when social scientists began to apply positivism to their own approaches. It is out of the philosophy of positivism that we gained the myth of "rational actors" so prevalent in classical economics. It also helped spawn Marxism and its dialectical, linear view of history. Essentially, positivists tend to believe that just because certain things have worked out a certain way in the (recent) past, that they will continue to progress that way in the future.

The attitudes of most Americans toward technology provides an excellent example of how this positivist view can distort and even blind us to reality. Technological advancement is a central part of the American story. For all our lives, and those of the preceeding generations, technology has advanced at a dizzying pace, making our lives easier in countless ways. And because this narrative of technology is central to our cultural narrative as Americans, we tend to believe that technological advancement will continue apace well into the future, solving our myriad problems as they pop up before us.

Climate change? Green technology will save us. Peak oil? Renewable energy sources harnessed by new technology will save us. Rapidly growing population and reduced topsoil? Genetically-modified crops and new agricultural technologies will save us. Global war on terror? New military technologies will save us.

However, I believe this represents a very shortsighted and misguided view of the reality of our current situation. History is not linear -- it is more cyclical. I am certain that people living in ancient Rome thought that they had reached the pinnacle of civilization, and the glory that was Rome would continue on forever. Except it didn't. When Rome's complex, centralized organizational structures -- political, economic and military -- began to crack and groan under the weight of its empire, it only took waves of hungry barbarians to bring it to its knees and usher in the Dark Ages. In most ways -- politically, economically, culturally -- Western Europe returned to a state that more closely resembled that before the Roman Empire. Things showed themselves to be much more cyclical than linear.

Of course, nothing I'm saying here is really all that new. Arnold Toynbee advanced these ideas in his magnum opus, A Study of History. The critical theorists of the Frankfurt School (Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, etc.) had similar views of Western culture and society. But these views are decidedly out of the mainstream, especially in American society. To acknowledge their possible veracity would be to call into question the entire narrative of American progress, to suggest that it might not go on forever, to pull the rug out from under the accompanying myth of American exceptionalism -- the idea that America is different and the rules of history do not apply to us.

These ideas, as I stated previously, have always been at the heart of the American narrative. However, they took on additional energy in the period following World War II. At the conclusion of that war, Europe and Japan were literally bombed-out shells of their former selves. However, the United States emerged from the war with its infrastructure completely unscathed and over 50% of the entire world's industrial capacity (and a seemingly bottomless supply of oil). This imbalanced state of affairs provided an engine that was used to create more wealth than the world had ever seen before. However, it couldn't last forever -- as Europe and Japan were rebuilt, they gradually began to take some of this share of global production away from the United States.

The only problem with this re-emergence of Europe and Japan was that the historical abberation that was the United States after WWII was seen by many Americans as proof of our exceptionalism. When our share of global industrial production began to decline through the 1960s and 1970s, and we passed our peak of oil production in 1970, we refused to acknowledge these new realities. Instead, in 1980 we turned toward Ronald Reagan's promises of "morning in America. We pushed our economy increasingly toward the financial sector, continued to pump ever-increasing sums of money into our military leviathan, and took an ever-increasing standard of living as our American birthright. Profligacy, not prudence, became the American way. Debt and deficits soared as we effectively charged our future to American Express on every level -- household, municipal and federal -- with a diminishing hope of ever paying it back. As Dick Cheney famously said, "The American way of life is non-negotiable."

The only problem with this kind of outlook is that it completely ignores reality. It ignores the political, economic and ecological limits to our expansion. It ignores the lessons learned from past empires that eventually were ground down by the costs of simply maintaining the status quo. It puts off the inevitable for the next generation to deal with. Many aspects of this Presidential campaign provide stark examples of this phenomenon at work.

One striking area in which this ignorance of reality reveals itself is energy. Both candidates seem to cling to the belief that we can become "energy independent" (the new buzzword of the political season) within 10 years, and neither one of them mentions the word "conservation" in how we are to achieve this aim. Nor do they address the difficulties in maintaining current levels of global oil production. Nor do they address the role of increasing oil consumption by China, India and the rest of the developing world. Nor do they address the inherent predicaments posed by other forms of energy such as reduced energy return on energy invested (ERoEI), storage issues or portability -- all areas in which oil has significant advantages over all other energy sources. It's as if they believe that by simply saying it, they can bring it into being -- just like in Genesis Chapter 1. The writer James Howard Kunstler calls this the "Jiminy Cricket syndrome" -- the idea that if you just wish upon a star, all your dreams will come true.

Another striking area in which this phenomenon reveals itself is military spending and its impact on the federal budget. Neither candidate acknowledges how it is hopeless to balance the federal budget while keeping military spending at it current ridiculously high levels -- estimated at $623 billion for FY 2008, more that the rest of the world combined. This spending, if we include the costs of past wars like long-term veterans' care and interest on the debt, accounts for 41% of the federal budget. For either major-party candidate to pretend that they will somehow balance the budget and reduce the national debt while leaving military spending sacrosanct is patently absurd. Of course, military spending has become the sacred cow of Americanism, in spite of Dwight Eisenhower's warnings about the military-industrial complex (he wanted to call it the military-industrial-congressional complex, but dropped the "congressional") in his farewell address almost 48 years ago, and the fact that our federal government is collapsing under its weight.

I could go on, but I'll stop here before the argument spins any further out of control and instead bring it back together. Let's review a few of these myths of positivism that affect our collective cultural outlook:
- To be an American is to have an ever-increasing standard of living indefinitely into the future, because that's what it has happened in the past.
- Since technological complexity has always increased throughout America's history, it will continue to increase indefinitely into the future (and has no dependence upon energy availability).
- America has always been the world's guarantor of liberty, and does not act in strategic self-interest as other nations do, so we must continue to spend increasing sums on our military and project it to every corner of the globe.
- We have always enjoyed increasing amounts of energy available for our use, so we can expect this situation to continue into the future.
- The Green Revolution in petroleum and chemical-intensive farming staved off the gloomy predictions of Thomas Malthus, so we can expect to continue to feed an ever-growing population without serious difficulty.

What happens when you begin to question these assertions? What happens when you try to look at the deeper reality beneath them? Do they remain prima fascie perceptions of reality? Or do they begin to call into question the most basic assumptions upon which we have constructed our cultural narrative?

I know what my answer is. You can draw your own conclusions.


Jeff said...

So, basically what you're saying is the facts are changing (have been for a while) and we're not changing to reflect reality? Keep up the interesting stuff, Mr. C.

Chris said...

What I'm basically saying is that societies are subject to their own intertia, even after forces that started them moving in a certain direction have ceased to exist. Especially when our cultural narratives are largely constructed around those now-absent forces.

In this regard, we're not very different than any other empire that has held a place on the stage of history. Even when our zenith is in the rearview mirror, collectively we try to convince ourselves that our best days are ahead of us -- largely because it feels so much better to give in to that false optimism than to acknowledge uncomfortable truths.